Comment »Posted on Saturday 30 May 2009 at 9:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Just A Review, Physics

This review originally appeared in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science.

I’m writing this review as a break from revision, with the ideas of science philosophers Kuhn and Popper still swimming round my brain. Both men have their supporters, but with 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense Michael Brooks is definitely throwing in his lot with the Kuhnians.

Kuhn argued that science is framed by paradigms, established bodies of knowledge that define the scientific questions of the day. Eventually problems with the paradigm will emerge, and science will undergo a “paradigm shift”. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a compilation of problems with our current understanding of the universe, and Brooks suggests that solving any one of them could lead to a paradigm shift.

A classic example of such a change is the move from Newtonian to relativistic physics, and the book begins firmly in the physics camp. Over the first two chapters dark matter is put forward as a possible explanation for both the apparent “missing” mass in the universe, and the unexplained drift of the Pioneer probes. From there we move to the prospect of varying fundamental constants (like G, the gravitational constant) and a look in to the controversial subject of cold fusion.

Next we get six chapters dealing with the troubling subject of life. Where did we come from? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And why do we die? These are just some the questions that science doesn’t yet have an answer to, but Brooks lays out some possible explanations.

The end of the book deals with two ongoing controversies in medicine, the placebo effect and homeopathy. I was intrigued to learn about the concept of epitaxy, in which the molecular structure of one material can influence another without any chemical reactions taking place. In the same way that plasticine forced through a mould will take on a certain shape, is it possible that the molecular structure of water could be rearranged by homeopathic substances to produce healing properties? No one has done the research, so I remain sceptical, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

So far I’ve skipped over one chapter in this review; number 11, entitled Free Will. In it Brooks describes a device called a transcranial magnetic simulation, in which two electric coils create a magnetic field to induce currents in the brain. Neuroscientists can use such devices to cause unconscious bodily movements in their subjects, which Brooks experience first-hand.

It is with this evidence, along with other brain experiments, that he claims the concept of free will is nothing but an illusion. Maybe it’s just my fundamental philosophical objection to giving up free will, but I found this chapter to be on far less firm ground than the others. The experiments described just didn’t seem to say to me what Brooks wanted them to.

One dodgy chapter aside, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a very good read. The chapters are short and for the most part self-contained, making it easy to dip in to, and it’s refreshing for once to read a popular science book about what we don’t know. The book looks to the future rather than just recounting the past, and left me wondering when the next new discovery will allow us to whittle the list down to a nice even dozen.

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